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The Butler Cave - Sinking Creek System

This page contains trip reports for the Air Dig in Butler Cave. Work on this dig was restarted in 2009 after Keith Wheeland led a trip to recon old digs in Butler Cave.

Butler Cave Air Dig - June 9, 2009

Text by Mark Minton - Photos by Yvonne Droms
Blue underlined text is links to photos
On June 9, 2009 Tony Canike, Brad Cooper, Yvonne Droms, Mark Minton and Nate Walter worked on the Air Dig in Butler. On our way into the cave, we found two fawns nesting in the grass beside the trail. They didn't budge as we passed by and inspected them closely. Water in the cave was a bit high after the recent rains, so we got our feet wet getting to the lead.

We decided that instead of working at the front of the dig, we needed to spend some time lowering the floor and improving access to the face, which was an on-your-side squeeze facing downhill. There was noticeable airflow. The old custom-made, heavy iron drag bucket was still quite functional, and worked remarkably well in the narrow trench of the floor. Tony brought two 100-foot ropes, which we attached to opposite ends of the bucket to pull it back and forth. Even at that we had to add a little extra cord to make the lines long enough. We removed many bucketfuls of fill near the end, converting a belly crawl into a small sit-up room.

We also leveled out the floor of the passage in order to make pulling the drag bucket easier. The only problem was that as we dug the floor down in places, the walls got closer together and the bucket would get stuck. We had to shave a couple of spots to make the bucket move smoothly again. We also removed a considerable amount of rock at the second corner near the end so that one could approach the face head on rather than sideways. We ran out of drill power so there is still a bit more to do before real forward progress can be made.

We gathered up our gear and left the cave at about 10 PM after a satisfying 11-hour trip. Plans are to return on July 4.

4 July 2009 Return to Air Dig

Text & HTML by Nevin Davis - Photos by Phil Lucas

On July 4, 2009, Jean Vargas, Nevin Davis, Tony Canike and Scott Olson continued the excavations in the Air Dig by first cleaning up the broken rock left by the previous trip. Some of the wall near the floor was also removed to make dragging the bucket easier and less likely to get hung up. Sometime near 1:00 PM Phil showed up and after taking a few pictures he was hard to get away from the lead end of the dig. It is now spacious there so the next trip will have little difficulty making forward progress.

Looking Down the Largest Part of the Passage

L to R Jean, Scott, drag bucket, and Tony at the End of the Day

Nevin Dumps the Drag Bucket

The Dragon Sky Hook - 11/25/2009

Today Al Grimm, Nevin Davis and I took the steel rope and sundries down to the Air Dig in Butler Cave and installed the Dragon Sky Hook rigging.  You know what? - It works!

Basically the steel rope hangs just below the ceiling more for about 122 feet from the stream end of the Air Lead Passage to the dig site.  The steel rope is anchored at each end to a 5/8 inch hardened steel bolt placed 6 inches deep into the bed rock walls.  Two tethers of webbing pulls a cradle to and from the dig.  Spoils from the dig are placed into a  container, the Dragon Bucket,  (the bottom half of an old tool box) and  placed onto the cradle. The cradle is attached to the wire rope with two pulleys allowing it to glide along beneath the rope.  The webbing is attached to a wire reel on each end.  These reels make quick work of pulling the cradle in either direction with a minimum of effort especially considering that the sled we have been using had a weight something close to an old army tank.

Dig End Rigging Dragon Sky Hook

We hauled out about 6 loads of dirt to test it and it works oh so sweet! I want to do some more tweaking on the haul system to make it easier to load and unload the bucket from the cradle.  But  even so-it is now ready for diggers!

Phil 11/25/2009


Air Dig April 24, 2010

Although we knew Saturday was not looking particularly promising weatherwise, our crew for the Air Dig (Phil Lucas, Vonnie Droms, Mark Minton, and myself) managed to enter the S.O.F.A Entrance at least a few minutes before eleven a.m. On this trip, we found a sign-in registry awaiting our attentions. (Hmmm, things, they are a'changin' in the Cove....)

The trip to the Air Dig took about 40 minutes...a mostly walking and talking scramble, nearly all down hill with our boots only finding Trunk passage water in the last 8 minutes or so. (By habit, I still try to do the avoidance thing on the way in....but of course slosh with reckless abandon on the way out.)

Located some 500-800 feet downstream from the left turn up to the Moon Room, the Air Dig has become the site of renewed efforts in the past few years. After it got back on our radar screen, I put in a pretty hard day of digging there last summer, extending the passage others had already extended. Several intense work days have been invested by a number of you to make this thing go!  In those first digs crews used a pulled metal sled, dragging it loaded more than 100 bullet-straight feet out of the dig, then after shouting or whooping "OK!"...pulling it back to the load point in the dig. It's methodical, repetitive, and very labor intensive. At the dig face, now advanced about 20 feet, (I'm not sure we have an exact advance figure), the Air Lead measures 4 inches high and 10 inches wide. The view ahead is what counts, though. A real teaser, the passage falls away about a dozen feet ahead, the ceiling rises gradually and indeed, the walls appear to widen. Perhaps 30 feet ahead, one is tempted to think it might just be passable!  (but you know how deceptive such visuals can be....) And then there is that breeze.....

To facilitate the removal of the dirt, brother Lucas designed and installed his Dragon line removal system. Far easier on cavers' digging arms, it permits one to simply hand crank the cable, pulling the dirt box toward the dump pile in the main trunk passage more than a hundred feet from the dig face. After adjusting for a few snafus and alignment problems, we were up and running!

Phil rigging the tram.

The face itself is composed of a solid, textured clay. For ease in working the face, we are trying to maintain a 30 inch high passage, at least 24 inches wide. On Saturday we advanced the dig some 6-7 horizontal feet....a back-twisting, butt-bruising effort, but one with notable progress. We found that a small shovel (left at the dig) works best, especially when pushed with one's foot into the mud face, cutting out brick size hunks of glunk which can easily be tossed to a bucket loader behind the primary digger. Mark used his drill, complimented by a rounding of higher powers to take out a lowering rock ceiling on the left of the passage...a portion of which still remains but which will be addressed on the next trip. We found that four diggers are now an absolute minimum crew size if we are seeking an efficient effort...three can dig there...but certainly two would be a waste of time. Five/six would be the ideal number with one or two cavers resting at all times. We employed three at the dig face...one digging...another filling buckets and taking them to the loader who together, would raise the bucket and dump it into the Dragon haul box, then muscle it onto the Dragon line. Person number four, waiting in the Butler Trunk passage would then crank the filled haul box for emptying. At one point while I was working the face, Vonnie and Phil timed several cycles of loading and dumping, finding that we were cycling through one complete load of dirt every three minutes!

Despite our eventual smooth sailing in this dig, we were not without out screw-ups. As the only carbide caver on the team, I fielded my share of jibes and verbal cracks. And you know I'd heard all this crap before from "the bulb and battery buzzards." (B's don't only apply to Burnsville Caves!)

But I mean, "Me give up carbide??...sheesh...."I WROTE THE BOOK ON CARBIDE LAMPS ...!"

Welllll....(take a deep breath here, Greggo)...when we first started testing the efficiency of the Dragon line, I took off my lamp and placed it on the rise above me given that it was glaring into the camera of the photo-documenter. A couple of shots seemed to suffice when all of a sudden..."What's that I smell?" someone shouted. And there was my lamp burning through the pull line dangling on the ground! Ye GADS!....

Despite yours truly's blush and mea culpas, we managed to repair the Dragon pull line and after a few test runs, we were off to the "three minute races."

My lamp wasn't finished, however. When I went out to the Butler Trunk for my stint at unloading full carts, I managed to bounce a few dirt clods into my face, getting crap in my left eye. UGH!
I fought the raw feeling and discomfort for most of the afternoon, even spending 90 straight minutes  digging on the face. (You all need to see this thing. It's going break out to big time VIRGIN CAVE.....but I digress!) Then, while serving as bucket loader behind the digger, I asked Phil if he would take a peek into my eye and use his handkerchief to see if he might not gingerly drag out whatever was still in there. He agreed. I took off my helmet and put it down on the loaded bucket at my knees, leaned toward Phil, and tried to be a still and responsive patient. We played eye tag for a few minutes,,,,he dogging the handkerchief across my eyelid and sclera, but I still felt something foreign in my eye. Such a raw feeling! Damn....again and again, different angles, eyes watering, lights blinding me...

And that's when I heard Phil say..."What's that smell?"...At which point I felt something VERY HOT --like an iron rod---searing into my left leg. MY COVERALLS WERE ON FIRE~!! Or at least melting!  All allusions to the Wicked Witch aside, I had moved around to adjust to Phil's light and hand and inadvertently poked my right rear knee in front of the lamp flame...OUCH!

It didn't burn me, except for my forefinger that touched the melted nylon. I left the cave with an inch plus hole in the back of my coveralls! (Hmmm...maybe I need to rethink shunning Sten Lights.)

We advanced the lead about 6-7 feet. Two solid dig days loom before we approach any significant changes. But the wind still blows in this thing and there is virgin out there. And as my good friend Mike Futrell would say about all this,,,,"It's just a matter of time before we starting putting some significant booty in the book!"

Gregg Clemmer, 4/26/2010


Air Dig - Saturday 22 January 2011 -- BCCS Expedition Weekend

Gregg Clemmer, Tony Canike, Nate Walter, Jean Vargas and John Sweet (me) led a group of 9 Nittany Grotto cavers and a friend of Jean's (Howard) on a trip to work on the Air Dig.  I got first names only for about half of the Nittany folks so I will leave it to Tony to fill in this gap and to forward this report to those for whom he has addresses.

I arrived at 1030 as Tony was going over procedures and getting liability waivers signed inside the cabin.  It was 15° outside so the wood stove was a popular appliance this morning.  We entered the cave at about 1100 and made straight for the work site with stops along the way for quick tour-guide talks for the new Butler cavers.  I didn't notice exactly but I think we got to the dig at about noon.

Since there were so many of us, Tony and Nate took a couple of others along to a dig site further downstream while the rest of us set to the task at the Air Dig..  For anyone not in the know, the dig site is at the end of a pipe-straight passage about 120 ft long departing from the main stream passage heading west.  The passage diminishes from a narrow walkway to about 18 inches high and wide, then it opens up somewhat where it has been dug out..  The first place to deposit spoils is in the main passage, so a trolley system had been constructed to carry dirt in a box suspended from a cable and controlled by tag lines at each end.  The actual dig face is some 30 ft beyond the end of the trolley.  Six people are needed there, one to dig, one to load the trolley box, and four to hand the buckets along in between.  It can be done with fewer but the middle folks would have to crawl back and forth with each load.  Three people are ideal at the dump end to take the box off the trol
ley, hand it out into the main passage, and dump it.  Two can manage this job if necessary.  So a work party of 6 is minimum up to 9 ideal, plus a couple more so that folks can rest without impeding progress.

Our first problem was that the pulleys on the trolley had seized up since their last use.  Fortunately we were able to pull the axles out and clean them.  It would be very useful to have a can of WD40 at the site.  I believe the system would work better if sprayed every 10-15 loads and then again at the end of the work session to reduce corrosion.  The second problem was that one of the digging tools broke almost immediately.  A substitute was found and work resumed.  After that everything went fine until about 65 loads had come out, at which time the trolley started to get hung up fairly often.  I'm not sure but I believe the main cause is the tie between the front and read pulleys being too flexible.  I think a rigid tie would work better and it would also help to have the tag lines attached higher up, closer to the pulleys, to allow a more direct pull.  We kept at it but progress was slowed by the hangups.

At around 1830 Tony wanted to start out and take part of the crew along and he asked me to join them.  We had pulled about 85 loads at that point and the rest of the group was soldiering on, hoping to get at least to 100.  The record for a day at this site was 93 so that seemed likely to be broken if the trolley held up.  We arrived at the surface at 1920, where it was again 15°.  I started for home immediately while the rest headed for the cabin to change and warm up.

All in all a successful trip.  I was really glad to meet a bunch of young cavers, to whom I apologize for being so bad with names. 

John Sweet, 1/22/2011


Air Dig July 2, 2011

Team: Maret Maxwell, Brad Kohler, Bill Shultz, Amos Mincin, Neil Garrett, and Landon Woodward

Prior to the trip I spent some time with Phil devising a new way to set the pulley distances on the cable to prevent jamming.  With materials, tools, and a plan in hand we entered the cave about 11:30 am. Things went smoothly until the turn off to Rotten Rock Waterfall when I remembered one critical item was still in my car. While the team headed on to Sand Canyon, I made a quick trip back to the car. With materials, all the tools, and a plan we headed on to the dig. Arriving in due course, Bill, Amos, Brad, and Landon headed out to the dig face while I set about fixing the bucket hall. Oops, the relationship of the suspending wires to the height of the bucket was not what Phil and I remembered.  With the plan now gone, but the materials and all the tools still available, it was still possible to do the fix.  There is now a solid plastic bar between the pulleys held in compression with a bungee cord. There is enough clearance between the bar and the bucket, that it is not necessary to remove the bar when putting the bucket on or off the sled.  With this arrangement we moved 45 buckets in 3.5 hours.  The air still blows and the dig still goes.  This was the first trip into Butler for Neil and Landon so we made a stop at the Moon Room on the way out and exited the cave about 5:30pm.

An additional improvement to the digging set up is planned. What is required are 3 tool box bottoms equipped with u-bolts.  The ropes used to haul the buckets from the dig face to the cable slide would be equipped with hooks so that a tool box bottom filled at the dig face can go all the way to the stream passage without having to be dumped.  There are currently two tool box bottoms available.  Brad brought the one without u-bolts out of the cave.

July 5th - Phil added the u-bolts to the second tool box bottom.

July 11th – I returned the second tool box bottom to the dig and set up haul ropes with hooks at the dig face

Note: There is a hammer at the dig. All other tools are in the shed.

Maret Maxwell 7/12/2011



Air Dig February 20, 2016

Butler Cave, the Air Dig, Saturday, 2-20-16

By Mark Hodge, NSS 63563, BCCS, with Gregg Clemmer, Brian Mayfield, Amos Mincin, Brian Louden, Daniel Cox, Alex Malone, Nick Socky, Kelly Mcarthy, Amy Heim, and Mitch Berger.

I arrived at the Homestead Saturday morning without a clue as to what I was going to do and ended up signing on to the Air Dig team. Initially there were 7 of us but we were later joined by another team at just the right moment to keep us going much longer.

We were in cave around 1030 and by 1100 we had started digging. All of the infrastructure that Phil Lucas and others had installed was still in perfect working condition. We sent two of our team to the dig face, had two positioned at the end of the zip line, and three at the entrance to the dig to dump buckets.
Right after we started two other teams went by on their way, respectively, to the Candle Room and Pat’s Section. One of those teams, Nick Socky’s, was forced to turn back before the Candle Room because of high water, and they joined us several hours later, cold and wet from their thwarted expedition.

When Nick’s team joined us we were at 52 buckets, and wanting to get warm, they eagerly went to the dig face and infused new life to the day’s efforts. We kept at it until we had removed 101 buckets and pushed the bottom tunnel forward at least 10 feet.
We are now digging in the top of a keyhole passage, and there are bedrock bulges that need to be removed with straws before the next team comes in to dig. During the day we had intermittent air, strong at times, emanating from the small lead. It wasn’t enough to replenish the air in the dig with 5 or 6 cavers working hard, however, and it was nice to exit the dig to better air.

We left several buckets, a 3 pound sledge, and a medium-sized shovel at the dig. The next group in there needs to do some straw work and bring the tools necessary to set a bolt that came loose on the rigging near the end of the day.

We exited around 7:30 P.M. for a 9 hour trip.

group at air dig

Above: the whole group after we stopped digging. L to R: Brian Louden, Amos Mincin, Kelly Mcarthy, Daniel Cox, Gregg Clemmer, Brian Mayfield, Mitch Berger, Amy Heim, Nick Socky, and Alex Malone.




Air Dig March 19, 2016

Air Dig, Butler Cave, 3-19-16

By Mark Hodge, NSS 63563, BCCS, with Beth Mutchler, Rick Wagner, Pat Minnick, Gordy Ley, Randy Williams, Joseph Vance, Mike Kistler, Amos Mincin, Jay Broderick, and special guest Jean Vargas and her glowing yellow light source.

Summary: We made 5 feet of progress and the lead appears to be opening up just three feet ahead of us. We will need to bring a bungy cord, 9/16 wrench, 50 feet of train track, and a sled for the next trip in. We can simply dismantle the train tracks currently in Complaint Crawl and use them. The dig face appears to be getting larger just three feet ahead of us.

We had a great party Friday night and I stayed up wayyyyy too late. As in 3 a.m. late. Well I can honestly say the last time I stayed up until 3 a.m. with a glass in my hand and a cave trip planned for the following day was…..at the Homestead. Maybe there’s a reason I usually don’t spend the night there.
I had told ½ of the group (they were staying at the Philly grotto field house) to be there at 9, and they arrived right at 9. So I put on my gear and told everyone milling about the Homestead to do likewise if they wanted to dig with us at the Air Dig. And I’ll be damned if we weren’t all in the cave by 9:45. A freak of nature, that. As we were leaving Beth Mutchler told me she might come join us and asked where we would be. I told her to follow the stream until she heard voices and saw lights. And much to my surprise that’s exactly what she did a couple of hours later.

We made a quick trip to the dig and started digging right away. We rotated every 10-15 buckets or so. Not only does this break up the monotony of doing one job too long; It also ensures everyone gets to dig at the face-always the most coveted position.

With 9 of us there we always had someone resting and that helps a lot to avoid physical burnout. As I was taking my first break I saw a light approaching and heard a “woot woot” This would be Beth. And she brought a guitar and promptly set up and started playing. At the time Mike Kistler and I were lounging around, bordering on sleep, and Beth started playing “Send me an Angel” by Bonnie Raitt. Her voice was beautiful, with perfect pitch, and the guitar was the perfect companion to her voice. I just took one picture, turned my light off, laid down, and listened to her wonderful rendition of that song with the accompanying gurgles of the stream far below us. It would’ve been perfectly sublime were it not for the annoying shouts of “Bucket” from the dig every so often.

Ahhh, but back to the dig. We moved 60 buckets, leaving a big dig face with occasional air. The air never got bad as it did the previous trip. At the end of the day I cleaned out the air lead and it is widening up, to around 18” from what previously was 6”. It also looks like the ceiling is going up in 3 feet or so. Even if it’s only a slight improvement I’ll take it. We most certainly can get there in one day of digging.

On the way out, as I climbed the little hill leading to Sand Canyon, I was surprised to see an apparition in the old camp ground, it’s head surrounded by a soft yellow glow.

Jean Vargas. I didn’t expect that. This would be my first digging trip to bring out more people than I brought in.

I’ll close with the only picture I took that day: Beth playing her guitar while Mike Kistler looks on.

Beth playing guiter.




Butler Air Dig January 20, 2018


Here' s a trip report from our recent Air Dig trip.

Butler Cave – Air Dig January 20th, 2018

By Hope Brooks, with David Smallwood, Ashley Hitchcock, Joseph Vance, Megan Junod, Nick Socky, Adam Byrd, Kristen Anderson, and Young Lady Whose Name Escapes Me



1.      Successfully find the Air Dig.

2.      Visit the Air Dig to determine if any repairs are required in preparation for a Naval Academy Mountaineering Club digging operation over BCCS Project Weekend #198.

3.      Pull some buckets out of the Air Dig.

4.      Go caving four months after shoulder stabilization surgery “not do anything stupid” that would peeve my doctor.


1.      We found the Air Dig, even with very few trip participants ever working the Air Dig before.

2.      No repairs appear to be needed for successful operation of the Air Dig.

3.      Approximately 30 buckets were pulled out of the Air Dig.

4.      Caving with a shoulder that does not sublux and dislocate all the time is really neat!


Detailed Trip Report:

In preparation for the Naval Academy visiting the Cove, David Smallwood and I decided we probably should visit the Air Dig to see whether any tweaks needed to be made. Additionally, I have been recovering from shoulder stabilization surgery to fix a tweaky shoulder that often subluxed and dislocated, and I was looking for an easy trip that fit the doctor’s orders to get back to my activities and “not do anything stupid.”

Saturday morning began with beautiful weather and yummy hot beverages. After the necessary milling around period, a team for the Air Dig assembled. Our crew was mostly filled with cavers who had never dug on the Air Dig, myself included. Luckily, we had Jospeh Vance and Megan Junod, as well as Eric Pelkey’s description to “climb up at the bedrock dam.” What could go wrong? Actually, nothing went wrong. We entered the cave around 1100 and made our way to the Air Dig with little issue. Climbing up to the Air Dig was surprisingly easy with a shoulder that had zero desire for freedom.

Once we arrived at the Air Dig, we stopped to eat some snacks and drink our water. Later, Nick Socky, Adam Byrd, Kristen Anderson, and Young Lady Whose Name Escapes Me climbed up and joined us at the entrance to the Air Dig. After a few hellos and sharing some snacks, Nick jumped into the Air Dig. Making like lemmings, we ALL followed Nick into the Air Dig. Thirty minutes of crawling and lying on our stomachs and talking amongst ourselves ensued. Finally, through an extended round of telephone, we figured out that we shouldn’t have all entered the tube and commenced a slow backwards exit. Nick and his team left to continue on downstream to visit leads and see booming Virginia borehole.

After we all exited the dig, we convened and set up face teams, intermediate teams, and haul and dump teams. I elected to stay on the haul and dump team in an effort to “not do anything stupid.” Throughout the dig, we swapped out folks at the face and throughout the dig. We totaled approximately 30-40 buckets (we weren’t great at counting). Ultimately, we determined that the dig was in good working order for a large team of midshipmen and women.

Near the end of our digging, Nick’s team showed up again, and we decided to break and visit the Moon Room and the Hanging Dong to show off some of Butler’s majestic formations to those new to the cave. Initially, I decided to sit out climbing up the boulder slope to the Moon Room and the Hanging Dong, but after a few minutes of sitting alone, I couldn’t bear not going up the slope. Away I went, shocked to find out that climbing through breakdown is easy if your shoulder stays attached to you. Shortly, I met up with the rest of the group, happy to be basking in my favorite cave with no fear that Free Willy the Shoulder would run free again.

After seeing the sites and squiggling through my favorite silly passage at the hill above the Eye of the Needle, we made our way out of the cave. We exited around 1600 to dim grey sunlight and pleasant temperatures. For the rest of the evening, we set up fires in the Homestead, at the campfire, and even got the hot tub running. A good time was had by all.



Butler Air Dig February 17, 2018

Butler Air Dig trip, 2-17-2018

By Mark Hodge, with David Debernardis (Sauro), Aaron Firouz, David Smallwood, Mike Lacey, Ken Leipert, Ellen Hoffler, Sonya Meyer and Joey Meyer, Heather Williams and a visit by a bunch of people, to include Keith Christenson, Aaron Clair, Brian Louden, Amos Mincin, Irina Tabarana, Dana Tacu, Janet Manning, Buzz Rudderow, and Daniel Tucker.

We not only pulled 47 buckets out of the Air Dig, but we also completed about ½ of the Blue Ribbon Loop, leaving the cave after 7 hours. We left a beautiful dig face, nice and big, (able to accommodate 6 cavers) and the air space at the top appeared to be getting bigger just ahead. We had very little air flow on this day.
Keith C and Aaron C came in with the Meyers and Heather about 1 hour into the day, and the latter 3 cavers stayed with us until the end of the day.

Louden’s team came by just as we were finishing digging and just about everyone went to the front of the dig to see what it looked like. A couple of people stuck their cameras into the dig and took some interesting shots of the way on.



group at dig


Above: the whole gang gathers for a group picture before the 2 teams went their various ways.

Some notes on the dig: We left a too-large shovel and a digging tool at the dig. The next group should
bring one small shovel or entrenching tool along.

We need a new bungy cord for the haul system.

The biggest limiting factor was the amount of time it took to move spoils down the 120 foot zip line. We
could cut this time in half by laying the track we already have between the entrance to the dig and an
alcove 50 feet in. We have tracks and a sled already in place; we will just need to bring in 2 60 foot
pieces of rope (haul and tag lines) and a couple of carabiners on the next trip.

Everything else went great.